Life & Culture

How R B Kitaj created his Holocaust masterpiece

The artist’s seminal work ‘If Not, Not’ is filled with seemingly random fragments and figures. What does it all mean?


Not until the mid-1970s, at the age of 43, did R B Kitaj start a series of paintings demonstrating his growing interest in the Holocaust.

His first work on the subject was If Not, Not (1975-76). The title, as so often in Kitaj’s work, goes back to a book from his library, in this case historian Ralph E Giesey’s 1968 work, If Not, Not.

These words are part of an oath which the people of the Aragon region of Spain were supposed to have uttered when they received their king: “We, who are worth as much as you, take you as our king, provided that you preserve our laws and liberties, and if not, not.”

In his unpublished autobiography, Confessions, Kitaj used the same words to explain his growing interest in his own Jewishness.

“I really believed that I could be a Jew only if I wanted to be a religious one; if not, not. I was dead wrong! Or, luckily, ‘alive wrong’ through all those murderous years when one third of the Jews in the world were killed regardless of whether they wanted to be Jews or not.”

Until the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961 the Holocaust had been a taboo among victims and perpetrators alike. After reading Hannah Arendt’s account of the trial, the first instalment of which appeared in the New Yorker on February 16, 1963, Kitaj confessed: “That broke the Jewish ice for me. Not all at once, but through the ’60s I would read the classics of what is called Holocaust literature. Levi, Wiesel, Hilberg, Davidowitz and so on.”

There is a pamphlet on the Holocaust with English explanatory texts dating from this period in the Kitaj estate. Above the famous photograph of naked women waiting to be shot to death in the Babi Yar gorge — one of 33,771 Jews murdered there on September 29-30 1941 — Kitaj penned the word: “Bathers!”

Initially, the term seems extremely odd, and it is possible that Kitaj uses it to make a connection between the massacre and Cezanne’s vain artistic attempts to represent a paradisal original state of harmony in his paintings of bathers. Kitaj had declared that he would “do Cezanne and Degas over again after Auschwitz”.
But the humiliated naked women in the photo, in the midst of a river-shore setting that was to become a hell on earth, is the theme of If Not, Not.

At first sight the painting evokes a paradise-like landscape with palms and waters beneath skies ablaze with light. Kitaj said that he also drew inspiration from the painting Le Bonheur de vivre (1905–6) by Henri Matisse. But he went on to say that the general look of his picture “was inspired by my first look at Giorgione’s Tempesta on a visit to Venice, of which the little pool at the heart of my canvas is a reminder. However water, which often symbolises renewed life, is here stagnant in the shadow of a horror… also not unlike Eliot’s treatment of water.”

The Eliot referred to is the poet T S Eliot, and indeed, Kitaj alludes to verses from Eliot’s sombre 1922 work The Waste Land. That poem was an echo of the horrors of the First World War and Eliot, in his turn, had been inspired by Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness. Kitaj was similarly moved by Conrad’s work — about the nature of evil and set along an African river — and he commented that “the dying figures among the trees to the right of my canvas make similar use of Conrad’s bodies strewn along the riverbank”.

The painting’s composition disintegrates into innumerable individual scenes and incoherent fragments, which seem to follow Eliot’s Waste Land verses that describe a landscape out of kilter:
“This stony rubbish…
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief
And the dry stone no sound of water… ”

Eliot also refers later in the poem to a “dull canal” and white bodies naked on the low damp ground”.
A closer inspection of the painting reveals stranded figures scattered all over the canvas, crawling on their bellies, lying on their backs, including (complete with hearing aid and gray suit, and supported by a naked woman) Eliot himself.

The stagnant water, the dead and blackened trees, and the books scattered about the landscape, speak of death and destruction and the ruins of civilization. The small figure of the man in bed, holding a baby, on the extreme left of the painting, is a self-portrait of Kitaj, who, perhaps hinting at a reason for hope, had written: “Love survives broken life‚ amid the craters”.

Above the miserable scene, like the entrance to the inferno, towers in the upper-left corner the gatehouse at Auschwitz. Kitaj painted a paradise turned into an antechamber to hell, the triumph of death in our time.

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